National Security Network

Somalia’s Crisis Owed to Failed Bush Terrorism Legacies

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Report 22 May 2009

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda Barack Obama Bush administration Somalia


In recent weeks, international attention has been fixed on the challenge posed by pirates off the coast of Somalia. But on land, a new crisis has been unfolding with far greater ramifications.  A coalition of extremist rebels, including the group al-Shabaab, has all but surrounded the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu, raising the prospect of a rebel government with reported ties to international terrorist groups taking control of Somalia.  It would be easy to write this off as an inevitable addition to the long litany of crises that have plagued Somalia since 1991.  But the policies and approaches of the Bush administration greatly contributed to the current crisis. The more moderate transitional government that the United States and the international community are now hoping will be able to maintain its tenuous hold was the very political movement that the Bush administration sought to undermine. Instead of adopting a clear-eyed policy toward Somalia that distinguished between Islamic groups, the Bush administration sought to dethrone a movement that was not a threat to the United States and had no firm connections to international terrorist groups. Conservatives backed the disastrous 2006 Ethiopian invasion and worked covertly to undermine the more moderate Islamic movement.  The failed invasion created a security vacuum and encouraged a harsh form of anti-Americanism and the emergence of stronger, more extreme Islamic groups.  The situation is now grim, and there are no good policy options for the U.S.  The black-and-white thinking that branded all Islamic movements simplistically as “Islamo-fascist” has now created the reality of a movement in power that is indeed linked to al Qaeda and bent on harming the US.  The faint hope of reversing this situation lies not in the invasion that some have proposed, but in pragmatic support for political solutions that will bring Somalia a lasting respite from nearly two decades of instability.  

Somali extremists again threaten to topple a more moderate Islamic government – the potential denoument of a long line of failed outside interventions.  Bush administration decisions to back a prior Ethiopian invasion and work covertly against an emerging Islamic movement that posed little threat to the United States – have backfired, galvanizing more extreme Islamic forces. With Bush administration support, Ethiopia invaded in late 2006 but was unable to quell the Islamic movement they intended to suppress.  The Ethiopian withdrawal late last year created a “security vacuum as fighters of the toppled Islamist movement waged relentless battles against them, government targets and a small African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu,” said AFP. The movement that Ethiopia and the Bush administration had initially attempted to counter, led then by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, won a transitional election and took control of the fledgling central government. But  this Islamic movement – which did not pose a threat to the United States – is now endanger of being overthrown by more extreme Islamic groups, some of which actually have ties to Al Qaeda. “Insurgents now control much of southern and central Somalia, with forces loyal to the internationally recognised government pushed back to a few remaining pockets in Mogadishu and close to the Ethiopian border.” “A major offensive by Somalia's Islamist rebels is posing the most serious challenge yet to the country's latest central government, reviving long-standing concerns that the chaotic Horn of Africa nation could fall entirely to militants with alleged ties to al-Qaeda,” reported the Washington Post.  According to McClatchy, “After a week of heavy mortar and rocket attacks that have left at least 135 people dead and sent tens of thousands fleeing, the insurgents have moved to within a half-mile of the hilltop presidential palace in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, which is being guarded by African Union peacekeepers with tanks and armored vehicles.”  While the BBC reported today that “pro-government forces have launched a massive military offensive against the insurgents,” it is unclear whether they will be successful in driving back the rebels.  Anti-government forces are comprised of a diverse set of actors including Somali clans, foreign fighters, and the group al-Shabaab, designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.  “Though most analysts believe Shabaab's organizational links to al-Qaeda are weak,” according to CFR, in light of reports from the FBI of possible connections between the group and the disappearance of 2 dozen Somalis  from Minneapolis have increased concern about al-Shabaab.  Journalist Jeffrey Gettleman summed up the severity of the situation in a recent issue of Foreign Policy: “The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamist insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets.” [Washington Post, 5/18/09. McClatchy, 5/17/09. BBC, 5/22/09. CFR, 2/27/09. AFP, 5/19/09. Foreign Policy, March/April 2009]

By viewing the Horn of Africa through a simplistic prism of  Islamofascism, the Bush administration in fact deepened instability, and increased the terrorist threat.  Since 9/11, conservatives have continually lumped terrorism and Islam together into one threat that they term “Islamofascism” – a gross over-simplification that ignores the existence of regional, factional and strategic differences and alienates moderates. .  In the Horn of Africa, where the Bush administration lumped all Islamic political factions together and pursued counterterrorism objectives at the expense of all others, particularly in Somalia.  The results have been disastrous for the U.S.  Jeffrey Gettleman discussed this approach in the context of Somalia, writing: “In a post-September 11 world, Somalia had become a major terrorism worry. The fear was that Somalia could blossom into a jihad factory like Afghanistan, where al Qaeda in the 1990s plotted its global war on the West. It didn’t seem to matter that at this point there was scant evidence to justify this fear. Some Western military analysts told policymakers that Somalia was too chaotic for even al Qaeda, because it was impossible for anyone—including terrorists—to know whom to trust. Nonetheless, the administration of George W. Bush devised a strategy to stamp out the Islamists on the cheap. CIA agents deputized the warlords, the same thugs who had been preying upon Somalia’s population for years, to fight the Islamists.”  This tactical meddling culminated in 2006, with the U.S. – backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, a military failure that only wound up inciting extremist sentiment and anti-Americanism.  John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen observed: “Focusing on hunting down suspects without also investing in state building is a strategy that could not have worked, and the decision to support Ethiopia's military invasion without devising a broader political strategy was a stunning mistake, especially considering the U.S. experience in Iraq. Predictably, resentment over foreign intervention has been building among Somalis. And U.S. air strikes against Islamist holdouts in the far south of the country have turned Somalia into a much more interesting target for al Qaeda than it once was; they could boost recruiting for the Islamists for a long time.” [Fred Thompson 10/30/07. Rudy Giuliani, 10/07. Mitt Romney, 5/15/07. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007. Foreign Policy, March/April 2009]

With no good options, it is important that the Obama administration pursue an approach that does not worsen the situation and that finally distinguishes between moderate and extreme Islamic groups.
  Thanks to the Bush administration’s catalogue of missteps in Somalia, President Obama now faces few good options.  While conservatives like John Bolton would have the U.S. invade the country using a “coalition of the willing,” the track record shows that a foreign military invasion would likely worsen the situation, lead to an anti-American backlash, worsen the international terrorist threat, and needlessly endanger American military personnel. An effective U.S. policy toward Somalia must recognize that the country’s difficulties can only be resolved through a political settlement.  While the U.S. can play a role in aiding this process, Somalis must be the ones to determine their own future.  A recent Enough Project report laid out a strategy: “the Obama administration must resist calls for immediate, unilateral military action against terrorist and pirate targets on Somali soil and chart a new course in its approach to Somalia that privileges Somali driven political processes, prioritizes inclusive governance, and respects Somali preferences. It not only needs to reshape U.S. policies toward Somalia, but must also press other external actors not to proceed with policies that are either flawed or intentionally destructive.”  Included in the reports is a recommendation that the U.S. “[s]upport locally owned efforts to improve security and public order and reduce the threat posed by armed insurgents,” in recognition that “[e]xternal aid is important, but it must not be allowed to overtake local responsibility to finance essential security operations.”  The U.S. can also “[h]elp President Sharif refocus on transitional tasks and improve governance in order to enlarge participation in the political process and defuse armed opposition,” while also encouraging helpful and not destructive involvement of regional actors.  Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Stroehlein add that “the biggest obstacle to peace in Somalia this time may in fact not be Somalis' infamously fractious politics but the reluctance of the international community to engage with the Islamist opposition. However, if there is going to be a lasting settlement that returns even a semblance of stability to the country, Islamists cannot be excluded.” [John Bolton, 4/12/09. Enough Project, May 2009. Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Stroehlein, 2/10/09]

What We’re Reading

India’s new government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, were sworn in.

Somalia’s weak, Western-backed government launched a counter-attack on Islamist militants in Mogadishu.

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed her innocence in court.

Vice President Joe Biden visited Lebanon and voiced strong U.S. support for their democracy and upcoming free elections.

McClatchy Newspapers reports that former Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security speech yesterday contained numerous errors, omissions, misstatements and exaggerations.

The U.N. appealed for $543 million in aid for Pakistan.

Citizen spies work to lift the veil on North Korea.

Chinese students reflect on the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Commentary of the Day

David Brooks says that President Obama has made America more secure and discusses the Bush-Cheney disagreements on national security.

The Washington Post applauds President Obama’s intent on forging a legal framework for detainees.

The LA Times interviewed Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish
who gave daily radio interviews when in hiding in Gaza during the recent fighting and is now an advocate for peace.